Chapter 5


Know more/know less.
(While what follows could
be construed as hearsay, there is more to this account
 than that. For now, no point going into how what was
   said here can be recounted. Suffice to say it rings
transcript true. Otherwise, much of the filled-in
backdrop is easily surmised. So, Saturn these pages
now, or you’ll surely Return to them later…) 

______________________

“Once ascendent, Saturn 
transits orbits vastly 
beyond one’s own.”

            “I’d heard about their Hollywood Hills spread, but this…”

            “God, California, Telluride—I can’t even imagine. And to think Josh used to hustle around for spare weed…”

            “Really, if I knew he’d be this kind of catch. I mean, he was such a zithead nebish in high school,” Sydney huffed, seated at the kitchen table, randomly clicking the snap buttons of her embroidered pink alpine sweater and hand-pressing her side pockets, then tugging at a snow-white turtleneck under that.  “Anyway, it was just too close a call altogether. And I’m getting way too old for this drek.”

           “Tsk, I saw on the news it was an inferno up there,” Melissa replied over her shoulder,  stirring a ladle there by the stove. “Did everybody finally get out alive, or…”

           “Who knows? Oh, this one little tootsie went totally manic, tried to push her way out a plate glass window. Caught a chunk up the length of her arm—just missed her ulnar artery, but she bled like it had sliced it right through…”

           “Ulnar what?”

           “Oy, don’t ask me. Luckily, Josh had invited some of his L.A. doctor pals—all these freaky orthodontists, uro-proctologists and maxillofacial reconstructionists—a stretch limo full of those.  They all kept kibitzing, ‘check out the flexor digitorum, man.’ ‘Pack off her flexor Longus Pollicis,’ lingo like that. You know me—I finally pulled this Westwood neurologist hunk aside to translate. Ulnar and radial arteries…instant death…that’s what he said, anyway—before hitting on me to ski out the week in his Aspen condo.”

           Back then, holiday excesses were evidently coming home to roost. With the le’chayims and mazel tovs behind them, and the shnecken almost gone, Sydney and Melissa played catch-up all the way back to our cabin. Syd’s autumnal pilgrimage to the Jeu de Palme and Firenze, her post-Hanukkah ennui on Florida’s Gulf Coast sand: She painted a landscape of worldly lassitude that drove her back westward out of sheer social deprivation. “I even called Josh and his bimbo wife, Gret-chen to wish them happy holidays. “He said, come up and join us New Year’s Eve for a little get-together. It was either that or shmoozing my parents’ vacation friends. How was I to know?”

Boulder cabin entrance.

          Sydney allowed as how one of those stretch limos scooped her up at the local airstrip, then caravaned to upside Telluride, a buckskin hostess dispensing cordials and four-channel demo acetates from the console bar. Gravanek’s Rockies getaway turned out to be a 1,200 acre mountaintop ranch, the little gathering a conclave of the current Midwest-to-Malibu rock music axis and its professional retinue that place set into the hundreds. Seemed that in the short time Sydney had lost touch with her geeky old school irritant, Josh had parlayed his stable of heartland mush-rock tavern acts into major record deals and a refurbished seven-building compound with working stables, luxury bunkhouses, one serious open-beamed banquet lodge and two 24-track studio barns. He’d branded it Das Kapital, and his marquee horses all recorded there now, not to mention much of L.A.’s twangy cause celebrities and some British pop-chart heavies too bloated to mention.

         She recalled ruefully how Josh had cast aside a Wharton MBA and his father’s Chicagoland paint store chain for a world of illicit music, illegal substances and nefarious associations; and how he’d double-barreled his father with the news, at his wedding reception, to that goyeh, yet. Still, here he was, cutting the checks, calling the tune: silver platters of rarebit and venison, Taittinger’s by the magnum opus to wash it down.

         “But at midnight, it all blew up in his smug, bearded face.  An ammo dump or something—machine guns, the works—out behind the stables. Turns out Josh had a posse of paranoid roadies dealing coke on the side. Nothing he’d dirty his hands with, of course—he just scooped his off the top. Word went around they torched the thing over divies and back pay. All I know is the buildings went up one after another, while the Jilters—his bad-boy hair band, no less—kept playing their greatest hits with a stage full of swirling floods and pelting strobes, timed to overhead footage of their east coast tour.

          “By this time, the lodge is total panic, tootsie’s silicone bleeding to death, mounting this grade-A tirade at the gutless producers and A&R types running right over her to get away.  Before long, Josh jumped onstage, totally crushed—like when I dumped him at the Ravinia Festival—trying to calm everybody down, while his next act, the Contusions started in on some heavy metal. Nothing you could really dance to, of course…but I kept thinking how easily this could have all been mine. That’s when the neurologist piled me and my things into one of the escaping limos with some groupies—which proceeded to spin out in the snow and nearly get broadsided by a volunteer fire truck. I glanced back, and a third of Das Kapital was like ‘Gone With The Wind.’  Took me a whole week in Aspen refusing to ski to settle down. And there was no way I was going to follow him to Newport Beach,” she sputtered, gesticulating our of her deep sweater pockets, animated forearms collapsing like empty sleeves across the table. “So tell me, what did you guys do?”

          “Whew, I guess not a whole heckuva lot,” Melissa slackened.

          By comparison, what was there to tell?  Christmas had been a takeback, at best—wrong colors altogether and a few too many sizes too small. Heretofore, Moon and I had both flown to Chicago for the holidays: I went home and did Xmas as best I could; she went home and…didn’t. But this time, we stayed in Boulder, final exams and all. Melissa quipped she knew there was trouble when the tree lights kept blowing cabin fuses. Thereafter, it was a yule of cool courtesy, an emotional impasse uneasily bridging this awkward spiritual gulf neither of us had ever quite experienced before.

          Admittedly, I spent as much energy fashioning a black hole in our holiday wonderland as she did struggling to fill it.  She strung her hand-spun stoneware decorations, slaved over her plum pudding and kidney pie; I locked away in the small study with my class notes.  She’d call friends to spread holiday cheer; I’d call home, then sulk—determined to be at least as miserable as I knew I’d made my ailing mother by not coming in. Melissa hummed Christmas carols and breathed spontaneity into prearranged presents—determined to at last leap the breach between candles and crèche, which had apparently pained her every December, long as she could remember. I just kept fighting this devilish impulse to drag her to midnight mass.

          “Well, our Christmas was sort of interesting…a little too much turkey and tryptophan, maybe,” she said, once again tending to her stovetop.

          “Christmas tree, decorations,” Sydney asked indignantly, pausing to take in the kitchen with a curiously smitten shake of the head, admiring the culinary arsenal on display. She then fixed again on her sorta sister, stirring honey into her freshly poured cup of Red Zinger tea.  “What about Hanukkah—‘Dreidel, driedel, I made it out of clay’—and the Menorah lightings?  Christmas…Moon, we’ve just got to talk.”

           Clearly, this kitchen was Melissa’s true milieu. Tangled among the copious ivy undergrowth were wall racks of copperware, baking pans, cutlery, chopblocks and gourmet gadgets galore carried over from her Lester days. Cramped though it was, she’d made room for an ingratiating corner nook draped in cherry blossom wallpaper.  Above the round oak table where she now busily unfoiled some of her cranberry-banana bread was a clear lacquered maple bookshelf lined with Spirulina, ‘Diet For A Small Planet’ and sundry whole grain and vegetarian tomes, leaving little doubt food groups loomed largest in the personal pie chart she labeled creativity.

          Sydney lingered over the cluttered fertility of this sky-bright kitchen—so inventive yet organically practical—much like Faith’s at home.  Her mother and a long motherless Melissa had viscerally connected that way from the start, as though they were devoted homemakers-in-arms, the one thing she repined she and Faith might never be. “Sooo, you were saying about Christmas?”

          “It was nothing compared to New Years,” Melissa sighed. She fanned some viscid sliced bread into a neat semi-circle on the tea tray between them, then ushered Sydney into the living room.  Once there, she set the tray down on a wobbly coffee table, then embraced her guest firmly, playing her back ribs like a cithara. “But let’s not…oh, hell, you know you’re the only person I could ever really share this stuff with. You and Faith will always be my saving grace. I miss that about you, Syd…”

           “Awww, me, too.  And we’ll always be there for you through this. You know that.”  Slightly taller, firmer of form, Sydney sealed her sentiment with a caressing of her erstwhile in-law’s behind. “Love your ring, too…”

           “Whew,” Melissa said, contacts set afloat in her welling, full moon eyes. She proceeded to light some newspaper beneath a half-gone Presto-log while Sydney soaked in the front windows’ sunny, smothering Flatirons tableau. “Oh, and I got it from Kenny for Christma…for the holidays…bluish-black star sapphire in a pewter setting—very special, one of a kind.”

           “Especially for a one of a kind like you,” Sydney mused, eyes drifting to the corner fireplace, focusing on her painting, ‘Waif and Grain’.  “Mounted above the mantle, yet. I’m so flattered I’m getting goosebumps. Either that, or I’m freezing to death…”

            “That was, um, Kenny’s idea,” Melissa topped off their teacups, then seated herself on the tamil throw covered sofa, undercurling her print skirt-wrapped legs.  She quickly began nibbling on some mismatched pastry scraps, heavy on the fudge.  “He even said it deserved center stage.  Here, sit down, this will warm us until the fire gets going.”

           “He said that,” Sydney sight straightened the portrait’s frame, color critiqueing the natural illumination of her acrylics and oils. ‘Waif’ cried out for more muted lighting, she seemed to chafe, joining Moon on the sofa.  As if at least her work had assumed its mantle of domination, as damn well it should. “So…you were saying about New Year’s…”

          “Where to begin,” Melissa swallowed a bakalava morsel and tapped Syd’s knee. “When we first came to Boulder from Chicago, the only place we could find that would take pets were these boxy apartment complexes east of town—‘immigrant landing’. Jim and Celeste soon moved in next door with their cocoa Lab.  Everybody became pretty good friends—even the animules.  Then, about the time Jim finished a history doctorate, his grandfather died…he’d founded some big Boston shipping company, or something. So they put part of Jim’s inheritance toward an overgrown A-frame on a dog-leg mining claim up by Ward—just before I found this place.  Celeste quit the law library and sailed all her Tupperware out the apartment windows. Been up there with their hippie slaves, redoing the place ever since.”

           “Wait, you found this cabin all by your lonesome?  Little go along, get along Moon?” Sydney cupped and blew the steam from a heavy, hand-spun tea mug, noticing some makeshift Tupperware planters on the windowsills.

           “Rode by one day, on the way to my crafts studio, saw this packed-up U-Haul out front,” Melissa picked at some cranberry-banana. “The landlady moved to Idaho, is just happy to have tenants she can trust. I put down a deposit, right then and there…sometimes I picture us actually buying the place from her.”

           “Finally taking charge, girl!  Just like when I found my little San Francisco place…on the way to the gym, that is.”

           “I suppose…any-hew, our first looksee at their new house was New Year’s Eve…I couldn’t wait.  Naturally, it turned cold as blazes, must have been 70 m.p.h. crosswinds blowing snow all over the roads.  But we finally got up there, going about three m.p.h., looking for an A-frame.  Only now it was an M-frame.  They’d added on this whole new space, with huge chalet windows looking upon the Peak-to-Peak Highway. Celeste and Jim greeted us in matching purple silk jumpsuits—monogrammed yet.  Inside, their place is beautiful stained wood, with all these…tetragonal and scalene triangle windows and skylights, they said.  Here, we’re in jeans and sweaters, toting potluck zucchini salad and legume-mushroom casserole, but they’re doing this elegant Scandian-style rack-of-lamb dinner—fancy wines, crystal, and everything.  I felt like I should have been serving them, not sitting there watching the deer and snowshoe hares chase by.”

           “Oy, stop with the selling yourself short, will you,” Sydney warmed up to the fire and flaky sweet pastry. And kiss the ground you weren’t watching scrawny adolescent rock groups wrapped in boa constrictors like I was…”

           “Well, I wouldn’t be too sure.  After dinner and some cognac, we all went into their new…cedar-lined salon, they call it…all kinds of abstract sculpture and custom-framed nature prints. Celeste fluffed a bunch of oversized floor pillows and afghans around the circular fireplace while Jim lit up this huge leaded glass ceiling mural they’d commissioned—like, recreating the sunset Gunnison meadow where he first proposed to her.  Sooo, we got into that for awhile, and Celeste started in how preppy predictable Jim is, and how oddly predictable Kenny could be. She’s from Santa Barbara, and has always been able to ride Kenny pretty good, because she’s a bit taller than he is, plus a cross between Farrah Fawcett and Elke Sommer.

           “A little wine here, little weed there, and before you know it, Jim pipes in his jazz collection. This is where it starts getting strange. Just before midnight, we all went down to see the sauna lounge. Soon as this Mel Davis music came on—Spain something—they got into a pagan dance ritual, slithering out of their satin—all of it. They’re contorting around in matching G-strings with the Wylie family crest and ermine trim. Then they beckon us with them into the sauna, on these long velvet-like cushions. Jim hugged me, and Celeste wheeled in a silver cart of champagne and trim white lines. Tsk, I like to have died,” Melissa cringed. “I mean, they were always such button-down homey types. But, well, the setting was so loosey-goosey, and I never thought Jim was that boring…scrawny, maybe…then Celeste moved on Kenny, looping a towel around his neck.”

           “Miles Davis…Sketches of Spain will do that to you every time,” Sydney sighed, unbuttoning her sweater some, revealing more of the tight black leotards she had worn since Aspen, an après-ski variation that clashed so distinctively with her brown leather calf-high boots.  She then lost herself for a moment in a side wall photograph of Baden-Baden’s Roman baths. “And all I got was juvenile, played-out rock ‘n’ roll, and some weird little package from Josh Gravanek to schlepp back to San Francisco as a special favor to an old friend…”

          “Well, for an awkward moment, everybody sort of scoped everybody else out, like we were getting ready to jump out of a plane, or something. I looked over at Kenny, his eyes were down to his chin. Honestly, compared to me, Celeste is Suzanne Somers. So Jim is massaging my shoulders, and I decide to kick off my clogs. Celeste still has Kenny lassoed with her towel, dancing him around the sauna.

          “But this time, she predicted wrong. Kenny exploded, pulled the towel away and threw it to the floor. Never seen him like that; it was all so mortifying! Then he grabbed me, knocked over the champagne cart, mumbling like a madman, something about sisters of mercy…I don’t know to this day. Jim and Celeste absolutely freaked!  They scrambled into their purple robes…Jim sputtering on about the Bronco’s Orange Crush defense, trying to talk Kenny down. Instead, he dragged me out to the car, screaming about how perverted they were. I’m apologizing every step of the way—we were supposed to stay over, for godsakes. I’ll never forget them standing at the front door with their Lab, Spoofles, meekly waving their purple towels…still haven’t worked up the nerve to call…”

           “So what was it?  The coke…”

           “Didn’t do any,” Melissa poured more Zinger from a chunky stoneware teapot with tiny glazed Cheshire cats bounding handle to spout. “He has a hard enough time with coffee. Oh, and the wind was really blasting on the way down. I finally snapped the tension by asking him point- blank what the big problem was, and where he got off manhandling the Wylies that way…”

           “Manhandle the Wylies?! What about embarrassing you…” Sydney grabbed and shook her by the arm. “Still always exhaling more than you inhale, aren’t you…never a sliver of a thought for yourself!”

           “Tsk, whatever…he raged on about how he wasn’t free enough for this, couldn’t compete with that. I told him that was his problem, not theirs—that the whole thing was just a little horsing around among good friends. And if he couldn’t handle it after all this time, he had a lot more growing up to do than I thought. About then, the snow was kicking up real good, and he slid off a switchback into a three-foot gully. Must have been four-thirty before a Blazer came by with running lights to winch us free…I could have sworn I spotted a bobcat and some brown bears closing in. Not a word of this to anybody, swear?! He’d positively brain me…”

           “Moon—swear, already, but he’d have to go through me first,” Sydney’s eyes strayed to the side wall once more, to a long-lens compression of olive groves, against the ossifying lava trails of Mt. Etna.  “What kind of putz are you tangled up with anyway?  What was his problem?!”

           “Putz–honestly. Anyhow, the next day, he was atoning like crazy, blaming it on finals burnout. I don’t totally buy that, but…”

          “Men!  Give them half a chance, they’ll ruin everything…”

Care for more?

Chapter 6. This conversation continues,
getting more personal and intimately 
revealing before Mr. Wrong(?)
stumbles in, storm clouds
looming over the hills…